Workplace Wellness Is a Work in Progress

Workplace Wellness Is a Work in Progress

Eager to reduce their health care expenses, employers are moving forward with workplace wellness programs amid legal uncertainty.

I’m of more than two minds on this whole workplace wellness thing. Like you, I have my share of people telling me what to do, and I don’t want my employer guiding my personal behavior and lifestyle choices with financial incentives attached to my health benefits plan. At the same time, I don’t want to pay higher premiums for my benefits because others in my risk-pool smoke. As an employer, why wouldn’t I do everything I could to improve the health of my workforce? Better health equals better business.

HOW MUCH WILL YOU PAY ME TO EAT KALE? Dollar value of employer financial incentives offered to employees to participate in workplace wellness programs*

With my New Year’s resolution to eat right and exercise regularly out the window by noon on New Year’s Day, I’m not going to worry about it. I’m pretty sure that the federal government ultimately will sort it out and tell employers how they can legally influence what their workers have for lunch.

In one corner, you have the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Last May, the EEOC issued final regulations on how far employers can go with their workplace wellness programs without violating workers’ privacy rights or discriminating against them based on a disability or genetics ( Under the final regulations, which, as of this writing, were scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, workplace wellness programs must be voluntary. However, employers can entice workers to join by offering them up to 30 percent of their health benefit costs as a bonus or penalizing them up to 30 percent of their benefit costs. The final rules largely are unchanged from the proposed regulations, which we detailed in July 2015 ( and again last January (

In the other corner is AARP. In October, the consumer advocacy group for people age 50 and over sued the EEOC in U.S. District Court in Washington ( AARP challenged the EEOC’s final wellness regulations, saying they violate other federal laws that protect the privacy of a person’s health information. AARP also says the 30 percent incentive provision makes workplace wellness participation mandatory rather than voluntary for employees who can’t afford to decline signing up.

  • 83 percent of employers offer workers wellness programs, with 32 percent incenting participation.
  • 59 percent of employers offer workers health risk assessments, with 32 percent incenting completion of a health risk assessment.
  • 53 percent of employers offer workers biometric screenings, with 31 percent incenting completion of a biometric screening.

What kind of incentives are we talking about here? Some 76 percent of those enticing workers to get healthier are waving around cash, contributions to health savings accounts or merchandise; 34 percent are offering lower health insurance premiums, deductibles or co-payments; and another 14 percent are flashing other undisclosed goodies, according to the survey.

A survey of 425 big employers by the National Business Group on Health explains why many firms aren’t waiting around for the EEOC and the AARP to work out their differences ( The surveyed employers ranked “initiatives to improve employee well-being” second as the most effective way to control health care costs, behind only “pharmacy management techniques.” And the top behavior the employers said they will focus on in 2017? Employees’ physical well-being, cited by 85 percent of the respondents. As for me, I’m going to keep eating deep-dish pizza until someone slaps me with an injunction.

David Burda (, is editorial director, health care strategies, for MSP-C, where he serves as the chief health care content strategist and health care subject matter expert.

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